Lost Lustre

Until the age of four, Josh Karlen lived in New York's pleasant, upper-middle-class Gramercy Park neighborhood with his bohemian parents and baby brother. Then, in 1968, his parents separated. His father repaired downtown to equally pleasant Greenwich Village; his mother decided, for unknowable reasons, to move with the boys into a new housing development that had been built among the drug- and gang-ridden slums on Avenue C. When asked (as she frequently was) what her rationale for this move was, she would say that the neighborhood was "gentrifying."

 

Well yes, it did eventually gentrify—Alphabet City is now a hip, pricey area—but not during the fifteen years the Karlens lived there. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Karlen felt that his family existed "precariously, like isolated cliff-dwellers above a barbaric plain." They were only about a mile from leafy Gramercy Park, but "calculated vertically, we had plunged through the Heavens to a street somewhere in Hell."

 

This Hell motif is one that recurs throughout Lost Lustre, Karlen's rueful, introspective, and deeply affecting memoir about growing up in the New York of the 1970s and '80s, a city far rougher than it is today. There were the terrifying streets of Alphabet City, where young Josh was mugged and attacked so many times that for years he suffered from what he later recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. There were the downtown bars and clubs, where teenagers were never asked for IDs: "hot, beer-reeking caverns, where deafening music ambushed you at the door. The scenes were sometimes whirlwinds of chaos and fury, the bands screaming, the dancing crowds surging under spinning, colored lights or in deep-shadowed darkness. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a couple of satyrs stroll by." There was the "alternative" high school where students too difficult for the authorities to handle were allowed to earn their diploma by working in offices rather than going to class. Karlen, after years of disaffection, was able to straighten out his life. Others were not so fortunate: his best childhood friend, lead guitarist of a downtown band called The Lustres, was to die from alcoholism at the age of twenty-eight.

 

Where on earth were the parents, and what were they thinking? Karlen wonders at it all, too. His recollections of the period, he writes, are colored "by anger—anger at the rogues' gallery that allowed us such freedom, the bartenders who served us, the bouncers who didn't check our IDs….There was an atmosphere during the weekends those years, in my memory, of Hogarthian revelry." There is some genuine nostalgia in these pages, for the glory days of New York's downtown club scene, of CBGB and Danceteria, really did possess a bit of lustre; but the author's predominant key is a minor one, imbued with sadness for his confused young self and the friends he lost along the way. Nevertheless, Karlen's intelligence and his fierce desire to understand the past make Lost Lustre an uplifting book, for all its melancholy.

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